May 30, 2020

Randy Thompson: The Church as a Hospice for the Dying

Extreme Unction (detail), Poussin

Extreme Unction (detail), Poussin

The Church as a Hospice for the Dying
by Rev. Randy Thompson
Forest Haven, Bradford, NH

“When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”

-Dietrich Bonhoeffer

I recently read an interesting article over at Christianity Today’s Parse blog on why the popular metaphor of the Church as a hospital for the sick is wrong headed, despite the popularity of that concept and its antiquity. The article was thought provoking, but for me at least, the thoughts it provoked had nothing to do with the article’s point. I’m inclined to agree with the author about the church not being like a hospital for the sick, but for reasons completely unrelated to his argument.

It seems to me that it’s better to think of the Church as a hospice, rather than as a hospital. The purpose of a hospital is to help people get better. Too often, that’s exactly what many churches strive to do. They provide self-help treatments, complete with psychological anesthetics to numb the pain, dressed up in Biblical language. I’m normally dubious about people whose job description is “The Bible Answer Man,” but Hank Hanegraaf recently coined a wonderful word that captures what I’m talking about, “Osteenification,” which is a state of ecclesiastical affairs where God is stumbling all over Himself so we, His creatures, can grab all the gusto we can. In other words,  faith boils down to thinking happy thoughts, which, in turn, unleash the power of the universe, or, at least, make you rich and happy.  An old trite song sums it up pretty well:

So let the sunshine in face it with a grin,
smilers never lose and frowners never win

My point is, the aim here is to help people get better–better at living the good life as this world defines it, to become better people as this world defines it.  This is the modern version of the church-as-hospital.

I think a more Gospel-based view is that the Church is a hospice–a place where people go to die.

If you stop and think about it for a minute, this makes sense. The people who are most serious about church should be serious about death, too. They’re there in church every week because they know they’re going to die, and they wonder, “Then what?”  It’s that “then what?” question that keeps them in place every Sunday. As that wonderful man, Samuel Johnson, put it, “Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”

But the Church is like a hospice for another, better reason. There is only one reason why you are admitted to hospice care: you’re going to die, and nothing can be done about it. If you will, the price of admission is death. So it is with the rite of admission into the Body of Christ. In baptism, we die to self. We recognize that our sin-sickness is terminal. We arrive at the baptismal font as though at death’s door, which is exactly what baptism is supposed to be.

This isn’t all gloom and doom, of course, for the One with whom we die in baptism is the One who was raised from the dead.  As Paul said to the Romans, and to us too, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:3-4). We like the resurrection part, but we tend to want to avoid the death part of what Paul describes here. But, we need to take seriously that the door to resurrection is death, and the way to Easter is Good Friday.

But wait, as any good infomercial advises, there’s more. The whole point of being in a hospice is to die. You’re not there because you’re going to get better; your life is over, and you’re waiting for the end. Isn’t that the whole Christian life in a nutshell? Isn’t this life lived between the “now” and the “not yet”? The whole point of being part of a church is to die a bit more every Sunday. “I am crucified with Christ,” Paul tells us (Galatians 2:20). If we “have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Romans 6:5).  For Christ’s sake, Paul says,  “I suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him . . that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death that by any means possible I may attain to the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:8b, 10).  And why do we die every Sunday? Because the more we die, the more Christ lives in us. The more we die, the more we experience the life on the other side of death, the resurrection life of Jesus. Good Friday is where we’re given the eyes to see the glory of Easter, which, for now, is our window to God’s eternity.

The Church as hospice makes good, Gospel sense. And, there are very practical implications in this metaphor as well. When people tell the pastor that they are leaving the church because their “needs” aren’t being met, all the pastor has to do is remind them of what the Church is, and point out that their “needs” are indeed being met: They’re being given an opportunity to die to their “needs” in order to experience more of the resurrection life of Christ. So, the church really is meeting their needs; they just don’t know it.

Also, commitment and membership are understood differently in a church which sees itself as a hospice.  Most churches survive because a small minority of hyperactive members keep the church’s ministries and committees going. The rest of the membership has too much to live for to get involved. You get a clear glimpse of this when you watch church families heading off to their kids’ sporting events  Sunday mornings rather than to church. If there’s a conflict between sports and Church, guess which one wins in most cases? But, when the Church is a hospice, things are different.  In Samuel Johnson’s words,

He that considers how soon he must close his life will find nothing of so much importance as to close it well; and will, therefore, look with indifference upon whatever is useless to that purpose.

In a hospice, the dying make time and have time to think about the Big God Questions. Youth sports and weekend ski vacations seem trivial and irrelevant in comparison. When you’re dying, you see things differently, and more deeply. In a church of dying people, they “look with indifference” at  trivia. They don’t go wandering off into Vanity Fair. They tend to stay put, which is another way of talking about “abiding” in Christ (See John 15:1-11).

And, then there’s the matter of spirituality. People who have many things to live for and be distracted by find that all these things have nibbled away at their life, and what’s left is a puzzle with pieces missing. What happened to my life? Where did it go? What did it mean? People in hospice care live moment by moment, for that’s all they have.  There are few distractions for the dying. But, as any spiritual guide will tell you, the only place where you can really encounter God and where you can deeply, personally know Him, is in the present moment–right here, right now.

The dying have a capacity to appreciate the present moment, and value it. Since they don’t know how many more moments they may have, they enjoy and enter into each one as best they can.  Each moment is a gift, each one a grace from God. Often, hospice patients, living fully in the present moment, unsure of how many more moments they have, are more alive than the rest of us, who live like we’re immortal. Christians who are the most “dead” are like this. When you meet them, you vicariously enter into a Presence that is both beyond them and greater than them, a Living Presence that is not somewhere in the unknown future nor a memory of past glories but which meets you now.

Finally, dying people treat other people differently than the so-called living people do.  When you spend time with the dying, it’s as though no one else on the planet exists except you. The dying have an astounding capacity to listen and pay attention to their guests. Although they may not be able to offer conventional hospitality, they offer a deeper hospitality, a hospitality of the heart. They’re not interested in talking about world issues or politics or religious theories. They’re interested in you; their focus is you. Often, meeting them is to come away with a deeper understanding of what Jesus meant by the “meek,” when he said,  “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5).  It is the meek who are uninterested in power, influence and control over others. It is the meek who make room for others in their hearts, who do not see other people as obstacles to be overcome, as ciphers to be manipulated, or as bores to be ignored.

This hospice metaphor gives new meaning to the phrase “dying church.” It may well be that there are as many dying churches as there are because they never were dead enough to begin with. It may be that many “exciting” and growing churches look alive, but their life may well be only the twitches and convulsions of a sickness unto death. In pop culture, when someone or something is supposed to be dead but isn’t, you have what’s called “The Undead.”  Zombies, in other words. To refuse to take dying with Christ seriously is to end up Undead. And, instead of being neighbors and salt and light to the world, we end up like the walking dead, seeking converts among people who are doing their best to avoid us.

Comments

  1. Beautiful!

    My pastor often reminds us that he is a dying man, preaching to dying people.

  2. Thank you for this post.

    The “Church as a hospital” metaphor only makes sense when one views Salvation as a continuous healing process. Given this view, it is understandable as to why a lot of Protestant do not agree with the metaphor.

    • Aryl’s point is valid. Church as a hospital remains a more appropriate metaphor for me: even better is Pope Francis’s declaration that the church is a “field hospital” for the world. As he said in September, “. . . “the thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the church as a field hospital after battle.” Our salvation is, as Aryl says, a “continuous healing process.”

      The field hospital of which Francis speaks is to be a shaded, protected space, a tent with walls open to the world where pilgrims and strangers alike are welcomed to come for healing of their wounds, addictions, and communicable sins; where we are restored and sent out again into the world in order to invite others in.

    • Randy Thompson says

      Aryl

      Thanks for your comment. However, I think it’s irrelevant to my point whether salvation is a “continuous healing process” or a one-off, walk down the aisle and get saved moment. Rather, I think of church-as-hospice as referring to God’s ongoing, sanctifying work in us to make us Christ-like. As Paul put it, “work out your own salvation with ear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12b-13, in context of verses 1-5). To be “crucified with Christ” describes our relationship with God in Christ both in terms of our salvation and in terms of our ongoing relationship with Him.

  3. “The whole point of being in a hospice is to die. ”

    One of the primary purposes of hospice is to palliate the process of dying as much as possible, without using extreme measures of medical intervention. I’m not sure that this is one of the Church’s purposes, since living the Christian life, being baptized, may actually make the dying process more painful, by bringing us face to face with our finitude, imperfection and sin.

    Also, if Church is to be thought of as a hospice, it should be thought of as a hospice where all member are patients and caregivers, a ministry of the dying to the dying. Although that’s what all hospices really are, that’s not the way they are thought of; in medical hospice, caregivers and patients are clearly distinguished, with clearly defined and different roles. There are professionals, who administer care, and patients, who are not professionals and who receive care. In the church, despite the existence of clergy, there are no professionals; all those who administer and receive care amateurs, and all are patients.

    All metaphors break down when pressed beyond a certain point. The church as hospice is a better metaphor than the church as hospital, I just wish there were some way to combine it with the idea of the church as a school for learning how to die. But I guess that’s too morbid, as is this: the major leading cause of death is life.

  4. Bingo! Amen! This! All those other ways of saying, “Nicely written and said!”

  5. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    Regarding your imagery at the end, I’ve run into Bible Zombies. (Usually trying to sell me their Zombie Fire Insurance.) The original IMonk’s most famous essay was about the motivations of Bible Zombies: the classic “Wretched Urgency”.

  6. “The dying have a capacity to appreciate the present moment, and value it.”

    Sometimes.

    When my father was dying at home under at-home hospice care (the only kind available to us at the time), the morphine that the hospice program used to control his pain, which I know was excruciating, caused him for the last two weeks of his life to hallucinate and be totally out of touch with what was going on around him, and totally unaware of me and my mother, his primary care-takers. He reverted to speaking only Italian, his first language, and since I know no Italian whatsoever, I couldn’t understand anything he said. But my mother, who spoke Italian, told me that he wasn’t saying anything that made any sense; he seemed, rather, to be speaking to phantom figures from his childhood.

    Before this last stage, he had been in and out of the hospital numerous times until he came home with us for the last months of his life. The only differences I saw in him as a result of his slow dying was that he seemed defeated and was afraid. I had never seen him defeated, or afraid.

    A few days before he died, I sat by his bedside as he lay in a semi-comatose state, and read in a whisper the gospel account of Jesus’ raising of Lazarus, and I cried. And I knew that the man I had never really known in this life, and who had never really known me, I would never have the chance to really meet and know this side of eternity. And I prayed that he would soon be beyond all defeat and fear

    “The dying have a capacity to appreciate the present moment, and value it.”

    Sometimes.

  7. Paul says, “I am/have been crucified with Christ”, not “I am being crucified”. We are only “dying” if we have failed to embrace our death in/with Christ. And we are only freed from our dying in death. I recommend Richard Beck’s “The Slavery of Death” for more clarity on this subject.

    • Randy Thompson says

      Christ died once, one for all. The Christian life is to daily embrace that–as well as the life that comes three days later!

  8. ” It is the meek who are uninterested in power, influence and control over others.”

    But the dying are not always meek. I’ve been privy to the kinds of power struggles that can be fought among the family members of those who are dying, and in which the dying sometimes participate, wielding power and guilt like weapons with which to make their last wishes and desires succeed, even beyond their death.

    The dying can be cruel and manipulative. I’ve seen meek ones manipulated by the dying (that is, those expected to die imminently) into doing things that hurt those meek ones terribly. I’ve seen those soon to die in the grip of the lust for power and control. Nietzsche said that the primary animal drive is the will-to-power, not the will-to-live, and that dying is not an impediment to the realization of the will-to-power; my experience has taught me that Nietzsche was correct.

    Being conscious of one’s own imminent death is not a guarantor of meekness, or any other good quality, spiritual or otherwise.

    Perhaps your experience has been different, CM, because you have entered those anterooms to death as a chaplain, and your office had influence. Or maybe you’ve just been lucky to have such widespread experience with people who benefited spiritually from the process of their own dying. My own experience has been that the dying are no more spiritually open or meek or anything else, good or bad, than those who are not expecting imminent death, and that the process of dying, in and of itself, changes nothing significant about the one expecting to die.

    The dying can be proud, the dying can be vain, the dying can be oblivious; what they were when they were not expecting to die soon is not much changed by expecting to die soon.

  9. I believe your hospice metaphor is genius. Obviously, Holy Spirit has given you this discernment. Thank you for listening to Spirit and sharing your insights. Undead disciples are the greatest threat to the “spreading flame” spreading as it should and once did. I see it in my own feeble attempts at discipleship and I see it all around me. Dying to self begins at the decision to put on Christ in baptism, and that work is completely done for us by Jesus Christ as we become righteousness by His work, not ours. But the straight hard truth is that dying to self is a daily discipline from baptism to the grave. That’s why Jesus reminded disciples they must take up their crosses daily. This is an astute metaphor and I commend you for sharing it. God bless your journey to death for Jesus!

  10. Off topic, but here is your insane troll logic post for the day. (Perhaps we should have an open forum bulletin board for these types of things…)

    http://oldpathsjournal.com/2014/04/14/if-you-have-no-line-then-you-have-no-line/

  11. This is a great metaphor! It reminds me much of David Platt’s book Follow Me where he brings up this very issue. Being a Christian IS a call to die. This flies in the face of much “easy-conversionism” where one raises a hand, goes to the altar, fills out a card, etc. and that’s it. The call of Christ is going to a place where there is a supernatural regeneration of the believer that changes everything. It is not a “decision for Christ” per se, but a transformation of the core of who we are by the Holy Spirit. This transfomation “toward death” will continue until we die and God brings us to His Heaven. Amen!

    @ Robert F – I think the folks you mentioned are not “dying” at all…The very fact that they are not humble and live their lives in total gratitude to God for His grace is the “proof” of that.

    • They may not have been dying in any spiritual sense, but they are now most assuredly as dead as dead can be. I pray for them.

  12. David Cornwell says

    “Osteenification,” which is a state of ecclesiastical affairs where God is stumbling all over Himself so we, His creatures, can grab all the gusto we can. ”

    Wow, what a good description of what is happening so often in church. Pastors using capitalist descriptors and categories to lure people in according to their “felt needs.” In order to fill up the church, preachers actually fall for this nonsense. What I read in the gospels has nothing to do with what we “feel” we need. Jesus resisted this kind of temptation when satan gave him a list of choices he could make about his future. His future led to a cross, and death, not a future based on his “felt needs.”

    When people approached Jesus, or he somehow came face to face with them, he mostly addressed those things they would like to leave alone. For instance, the rich man had to come face to face with his “unfelt needs:

    “Looking at the man, Jesus felt genuine love for him. ‘There is still one thing you haven’t done,’ he told him. ‘Go and sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.’ At this the man’s face fell, and he went away sad, for he had many possessions. Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, ‘How hard it is for the rich to enter the Kingdom of God!’ This amazed them. But Jesus said again, ‘Dear children, it is very hard to enter the Kingdom of God’.”

    One could go on and on with this. But God comes, revealing himself in Jesus, the Word. It is not something we are looking for, but comes into our presence with power and light. He did not come with a basket of goodies that we take a look at, and pick out what seems to suit us today, or that we can bank on tomorrow.

    William Willimon commented on one of Rick Warren’s series of sermons. He states: “Warren’s preferred biblical hermeneutic is to extract certain purposeful prnciples from a text and then preach those extracted principles. this gives Warren’s hearers the modernist illusion that they can choose what scripture says to them, that they are in control of scripture.”

    That which leads to a cross normally is not high on a list of choices.

  13. I understand where the writer is coming from, and he makes very good points and offers some good reminders. I see some limitations that prevent me from going with this. Not the least of these is a kind of “worm theology” using a different vocabulary. There are good things in the package, but it’s lumpy and not very well tied up.

    God created us for life, graciously bestowing it upon us even to begin with. Jesus came to give us life, and that more abundantly. Jesus came to free us from death and corruption and everything that leads to and fosters them. This certainly does include our putting certain things to death, with the help of the Holy Spirit; sometimes this is quite the struggle. But the outcome is always seen in scripture as life. In the Philippians quote, St Paul’s goal is attaining the resurrection. If we have been buried with Christ in Baptism, we have passed beyond death already, and may begin to be filled with and exude the Life of the Age To Come already, as we cooperate with God in the process of the healing that has already begun – Inaugurated Eschatology on the personal level. What do we even have to offer anyone if it is not ultimately that quality of life – the very life of God? That’s the Presence the author encounters in those who are alive with that life, even if they are grappling with immanent physical death.

    It’s not for nothing that some of the greatest Christian theologians likened the church to a hospital, They also were instrumental in preaching and practicing charity toward the sick and downtrodden, with a view to healing of all kinds. I’ll stick with them. I think the antidote to both “Osteenification” and “program church” is a continual pursuit of honesty and humility, which is itself evidence of that life at work in a person.

    Sorry to be so negative during Holy Week. I thought I could let this pass… but I can’t. Forgive me in my weakness.

    Dana

    • + 1, Dana.

    • I don’t think you are being negative, Dana. You are presenting a view which I think is very good. Yes, we are dying to self when we are baptized as Randy says so well in his essay. But in that dying, we are putting on the mind of Jesus and being filled with his very Holy Spirit which is Life itself. Jesus healed people, forgave people and brought his resurrection life to the world. Yes, we will suffer throughout this life, but we will have the joy that only God can bring to us. And like you said, and I pray, may we all be “filled with and exude the Life of the Age To Come.”

    • I think it is good to keep both metaphors, hospital and hospice, to describe the church. I’m not sure that the original hospitals were much different from our current hospices.

      I think, Dana, you provide a good defense for retaining what is good in the hospital metaphor, but you’ll please forgive me for taking a certain masochistic delight in “worm theology”…

    • Randy Thompson says

      Dana, thanks for the thoughtful response.

      Your comment about the “lumpy package” amused me, and I suspect there’s truth to it. However, I’m not at all talking about “worm theology” here. It seems to me that “worm theology” confuses feeling bad about yourself with dying to yourself. I’m not a fan of the former, but I am of the latter, which, from what I can make it, moves you beyond feeling bad about yourself, which is just another aspect of being self-absorbed. In fact, now that I’m thinking of it, I suspect that “worm theology” is the devil’s substitute for dying to yourself. The flesh serves as compost for growth in the Spirit.

      Christ has died, and Christ has risen, for which praise God! The Christian life consists, I think, of experientially appropriating both his death and his resurrection life. In short, we never outgrow the cross. The trick, I suspect, is maintaining a balance. Depressive types, like me, may overplay the death side of the cross. Happy-clappy types may overplay the resurrection side Both, in this life, are needful.

      As to your comment about the “continual pursuit of honesty and humility,” I can only say “Amen!”

      Again, thanks for your response.

  14. I believe this just became my favorite article. Zombies indeed! Truly perceptive the walk of faith is indeed that of the green mile, the death of self. this must occur before the rebirth, the renewing, the new man may emerge. Jim.

  15. Christiane says

    RANDY, I have always loved this hymn especially for its ending:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-U3mHgedrsQ

    It comes from the Sarum Primer and for me, it evokes also how my own father lived and how he passed away.
    Maybe dying is a part of living after all . . . and if ‘God be at my end and in my departing’, we come full circle as it was meant to be and are returned to the One in Whose image we were made.

  16. I am a hospice nurse as well as very active in our church. I find this article quite thought provoking. I agree with many of the points related to the comparison of the church as a Hospice. I has a wonderful Christian patient who spoke of her fight with cancer and then her time under Hospice care as “the sweetest journey to Heaven”. Her death was glorious in every sense of the word. You could feel His presence in the room as she stepped into the eternal. But I have to agree with some of the above comments, not all deaths under Hospice care are peaceful. But is that just like many of us in our Christian walk. Some die to sin without a fight, others fight it each step of the way. Personalities do not change as people face their sins or face physical death. But I find the underlying theme accurate. The church is not a hospital in that it makes people “all better” but it is indeed a place where people are healed in order to die better. Good word.

  17. Re: “Randy Thompson: The Church as a Hospice for the Dying”

    If this whole post is referring to actual death and is not alluding to allegorical situations (sorry I skimmed over first half did not read closely)…

    Good luck with convincing Christians to be more sympathetic or helpful to those in grief.

    After my mother died and I went to Christians for hope, love, sympathy, help, I instead got judged, criticized, insults, guilt tripped and shamed.

    Apparently, if you are a hurting Christian, even in the face of death of a loved one, other Christians think you’re supposed to just “suck it up” and silently suffer, do not go to them for help.

    Most Christians, like many Non Christians, do not want to actually do the hard work and time it takes to help someone heal after a death, like spend time listening to the talk about the death. I had to grieve all alone, cope all alone.

    Christians I contacted for help or just a friend to talk to about what I was going through could not be bothered to return e-mails or calls, or tried to make them super short. Those that did call or talk to me face to face gave me platitudes, shamed me for hurting and asking for help. etc.

    Christians expect you to stuff down the feelings of sadness and just volunteer at soup kitchens

    They think “serving the less fortunate” is a cure all for every single hurt in life – it is not. I even tried it a few times, and it left me more despondent.

    Most Christians are terrible at helping people who are grieving loss of a loved one. They ignore you or shame you.